Exposing the ‘Tansaekhwa’ Movement of Post-War Korea

Joan Kee: “It’s been an ongoing struggle to make sense of the work, but I think in many ways, these artists don’t want you to think of their work as making sense.”

Why So Monochrome?

Art historian Joan Kee sheds light onTansaekhwa, a crucial artistic movement in the post-Korean War period.

This story was originally published in KoreAm Journal’s August 2013 issue.

Mark Rothko. Jackson Pollock. Franz Kline. Hans Hoffman. If you follow contemporary art, or have a soft spot for abstraction, these names surely ring a bell. But what about Kwon Young-woo or Ha Chonghyun? Lee Ufan or Park Seobo? These artists were all part of the contemporary Korean art movement known as Tansaekhwa, or monochromatic painting, which drew heavily from and embellished upon the methods and styles used in Western abstraction and expressionism. Yet, most people—Korean American or not—are unlikely to know much about the artistic movement, which attempted to over- throw the confines and hierarchy of the Korean art world.

Art historian and professor Joan Kee is hoping to change that with the publication of her book, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method. The text is the first scholarly English-language book of its kind, tracking the history of the development of contemporary Korean art and the emergence of abstraction in Asia.

The first-time author says she is hoping to “get the ball rolling” with her recent publication and inspire fellow scholars and art lovers to explore the realm of 20th-century South Korean art.

“There are deliberate holes I left at the conclusion [of the book] and these unfinished threads,” Kee explained during a Skype interview last month. The scholar, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is in Singapore until September, researching Southeast Asian art. “They’re unfinished for a purpose because I want other readers or younger scholars to look at this and say, ‘Oh, this is where the conversation can now pick up,’ allowing a different direction for this idea of Korean contemporary art to move towards.”

Tansaekhwa emerged directly following the Korean War, peaking in the 1960s and ’70s during the era of South Korean President Park Chung-hee, a dictator with a controversial legacy. It was a time of rapid industrialization, as the country attempted to rebuild itself amid the ruins of war, but was also marked by censorship and violent clashes between citizens and the govern- ment. While you won’t see paintings depicting scenes of activists with Molotov cocktails, Kee says, there is something inherently political about the artwork from this period.

Écriture No. 5-78 by Park Seobo, 1978. Oil and paint on canvas.

“There’s a common misconception that, for art to be political, it has to have some political message. If you’re living in an authoritarian country … you can’t have an overt political message because that’s just going to send you to the deepest, darkest of dungeons,” she says. “So, instead, what these artists had to do is be a little more careful in thinking about, ‘If I want to raise some kind of awareness, how can I do that through the work?’”

Untitled by Kwon Young-woo, 1973. Korean paper on plywood.

Kee points to the paintings of people like Park Seobo, who is considered the “godfather” of the movement because of his promotion of artists and organized exhibitions. However, because Park worked in a world rife with censorship, he had to learn to “negotiate the limitations from the state.” On one hand he was promoting and working closely with abstract artists, many of whom were critical of the state, while on the other, he was creating subsidized pieces of artwork for the regime under the National Documentary Paintings Project, what Kee describes as the “New Deal” for South Korean artists. Estab- lished artists were approached by the state to create pieces of work glorifying South Korea and its government; style was never dictated, only content. So artists like Park chose to employ color and shape to express hidden themes.

Park Seobo in his studio.

“[Export Frigate] is a painting of this giant boat of ex- ports, but the way he’s painting it, it’s not a simple glorification,” says Kee. “His work is dark, there’s a lot of skepticism involved … it makes this whole idea of productivity seem mechanical, almost soulless.”

At its core, the art of Tansaekhwa is about raising awareness. It’s a style that intends to draw the reader in and demands reflection. “This is work that changes so easily depending on lighting, on the conditions in which you are in. That to me does impart a certain kind of consciousness because it really does place the burden of looking at the work on you, the viewer, so you become much more engaged with your own surroundings.”

Even Kee admits that, despite many years of research (she began the book in 2003), her grasp of the work of theTansaekhwa artists is still incomplete.

“When I’ve seen some of these works in the museum, they’re just hard to see,” she says. “I don’t really get it. There’s something, whether they’re using paint or thinking about the shape or size of the canvas, that somehow is very unsettling, especially if you’re someone like me who came to art history through Western art.

“It’s been an ongoing struggle to make sense of the work, but I think in many ways, these artists don’t want you to think of their work as making sense.”

Kee explains that the real power in the works of Tansaekhwa artists is the mode of production. Art is no longer focused on the end product, but the labor of creation. For example, when Lee Ufan painted From Point, he intentionally used a hard mineral pigment commonly used in Japanese art.

Ha Chonghyun

She cites another series of work, Conjunction by Ha Chonghyun. “[Ha] is using a traditional canvas, but then what he’s doing is taking paint, he’s pushing it from the back to the front. It’s quite unusual. I don’t know anyone else in the world who does this,” says Kee. “You have this guy who is going under the canvas and pushing up paint, who is really emphasizing that labor intensiveness. There is paint, there is kind of dribbling or there is paint that’s kind of smoothed over, but then you realize he wasn’t painting with a brush, that there was something else going on.”

“What he’s doing is taking this brush, dipping it into this paint, and then he’s just pressing it into this Western style canvas over and over again. It’s a process that is very labor intensive,” Kee explains. “One of the issues with a lot of these artists is how they’re putting together this art with these different materials.”

Kee’s book focuses a great deal of attention on the works of Lee and Ha. However, she admits to personally having a soft spot for the works of Kwon Young- woo, who, despite being a highly-skilled classical artist, would use his nails to rip apart paper. “The brush is being replaced by the hands,” Kee says, as she explains the significance in rejecting the accepted modes of old and instead seeking to question art development.

The works of the Tansaekhwa artists were in part a response to the insular art world, which created limits and standards that arguably stifled the creativity of some. Artists like Kwon sought out alternative materials and processes, and continually questioned the methodological approaches al- ready in place. It was a radical movement setting the visual art world within Asia on fire, despite a heavy-handed, censor- ing government.

Lee Ufan

Kee first fell in love with art history while in high school, but ended up pursuing a career in corporate law. However, after deciding the work was unfulfilling, the Yale and Harvard graduate returned to school to study art history. During an en- trance interview for a well-known and “conservative” art history program, she explained that she was interested in contemporary Asian art, to which the interviewer earnestly asked, “Why aren’t you interested in real Asian art?” The question caught Kee off guard, to say the least.

“The implication is that contemporary Asian art is deriva- tive, that it’s just imitating the West,” Kee says. “You know what? I want to change that. I want to change the way people see contemporary Asian art, have them realize that, yes, this is something worth studying, not just because it’s from Asia or from a ‘happening’ part of the world, but it’s art that can take its place alongside the best work of its own time.”

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